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element, the ambient air, and if the pursued touch but the surface of the water, it proves an altar of safety against the assailant; but the gannet procures its food not only in another element, but, from a great elevation in the air perceives it far beneath the surface of the sea, majestically poises itself, and, direct as a plummet, shoots into the deep with an impetus that forces a jet of water into the air, and leaves behind a circle of snowy foam conspicuous from a great distance. The more intelligent fishermen of Belfast Bay always like to see the gannet when they are herring-fishing, as they set their nets according to the height above the water from which it plunges; the greater the elevation of the bird in the air, the lower in the water the nets are sunk. The extreme depth of water in which the gannet can see its prey from on high must be somewhat conjectural ; but that numbers of these birds have been taken in nets at a depth of 180 feet is fully proven. On this subject I contributed the following notes to 'Charlesworth's Magazine of Natural History,' in January 1838 (vol. ii. p. 19) :
Having heard from two friends, who were grouse-shooting in the neighbourhood of Ballantrae, that they had seen great numbers of gannets lying in a state of decay, in holes on the beach, and that these birds had been taken at extraordinary depths in the fishermen's nets, I made particular inquiry on the subject from a worthy resident of my acquaintance (postmaster, &c., of the village), and on the 15th of November, 1836, received the following reply :—" Gannets are very commonly caught about Ballantrae (chiefly in the month of March) in the fishermen's nets, which are generally sunk from nine to twenty, but sometimes to the depth of thirty fathoms,* just as the fish, herrings, &c., are lying. They are taken at all these depths, when the water is rough as well as smooth, and in both the cod and turbot nets (respectively five and seven inches wide in the mesh). Of the greatest quantity taken at one time, ‘John, son of old Alex. Coulter, can make. oath, that he took ninety-four gannets from one net, at a single haul, a few years ago. The net was about sixty fathoms long, a cod-net, wrought in a five-inch scale. The birds brought up the net, with its
* One hundred and eighty feet; there being six feet in a fathom.
sinkers and fish, to the top, where such as were not drowned, made a sad struggle to escape. There were four nets in this train ; but the above ninety-four were in one of the nets, and there were thirty-four additional birds in the other part of the train, being one hundred and twenty-eight gannets in all.” It is added, that “there are found also in the nets, what are here called holland hawks,* and burrians ;t-a holland hawk weighs 14 lbs.--the bird called burrian weighs 7 or 8 lbs., and is speckled on the back like a starling, belly and breast pure white. Some others of the Ailsa birds are also got in the nets at all depths ;-one is about the size of a pigeon, moves in the water with extended wings, always pushing his way forward, and thus gets drowned. Herrings are occasionally taken in the wide cod-net, and also mackerel.” Were these facts not amply attested, I would be incredulous about the depths which the gannet sounds; but the information furnished in writing, the truth of which, it is stated, may be implicitly relied on, is precisely what was related to my friends, and the singularity of which prompted my inquiry. The vicinity of Ailsa Craig, the great breedinghaunt of the gannet in this quarter, must be recollected, in connection with what is here related.
They have repeatedly been captured since in the same manner. At the end of March 1840, an eye-witness mentioned to me that he saw a number of gannets taken from the herring-nets there. On the subject of the gannet's fishing, the following notes have been contributed. Some of these birds came daily under the observation of a scientific friend, who spent some time late in the summer of 1833 at Cushendall, on the coast of Antrim. He remarked that when in pursuit of prey they invariably went down perpendicularly, remained a long time under water, and never reappeared without a fish crosswise in their bills, which was thrown up into the air, caught by the head in its descent, and swallowed. This done, they flew away close above the surface of the water to
* Great Northern Diver. Colymbus glacialis, Linn. “ Allan-hawk” is applied to divers (Colymbi) generally, in Belfast Bay.
† Red-throated Diver. Colymbus septentrionalis, Linn.
| Puffin (Mormon fratercula, Temm.), probably, judging from the size. The description of the manner of moving under water, would, perhaps, apply generally to diving birds.
a distance of two or three hundred yards, alighted, and remained there for one or two minutes preening themselves, and again returned to the fishing-ground. My informant supposes this rest to be necessary after the exhaustion caused by their descent. He has observed them when apparently about to poise themselves previous to making the plunge, fly away obliquely (though not alight), as if they saw they had no chance of securing their intended prey ; but, once the plunge was made, the object never escaped. They not only remained a long time under water, but emerged at a considerable distance from where they disappeared.*
The Rev. G. M. Black, writing from Annalong, at the sea-base of the mountains of Mourne, in October, 1849, observes :—“Gannets are frequent on the coast, and I spend often some half-hours in watching them fishing. Their power of sight must be amazing, as, no matter how rough the sea may be, it seems to make no difference to them. The fishermen say they know on what kind of fish they are working' by the manner in which they strike;' if on herring or grey gurnard, slow-swimming fish, as I believe, they ascend perpendicularly, or nearly so, but if on mackerel, obliquely. One which happened to be caught asleep on the water (which is often the case) during the mackerel season, was brought on board the boat and tied by the leg to one of the 'thafts. To test its appetite some fish were thrown to it, when, without drawing breath,' it swallowed four full-grown mackerel, and probably would have disposed of more, had not the fishermen thought it had had enough, at least for one meal. They must breed very early, as I have observed, in the end of May, young birds quite strong on the wing, and fishing with the old ones. In winter I occasionally see the old birds, and them only."
Ilaving requested my correspondent to note the dates of these birds being seen, he reported the last one in 1849, to have appeared on the 15th of November, and the first one in the spring on the 10th of March ; during the winter months of the season 1849-50, not one was observed. The oblique mode of descent when fishing, is little known, but it is unquestionably sometimes practised. A fisherman under whose notice gannets almost daily come in the season within the entrance of Belfast Bay, is of opinion (and doubtless correctly so) that they descend obliquely when their prey is in shallow water;—as in fishing for sand-eels at the depth of a few feet, and for herring fry at or near the surface. In very deep water likewise, they occasionally strike obliquely.
* Audubon, having shot a gannet just as it emerged with a fish in its bill, and having found two others half-way down its throat, remarks,-“This has induced me to believe that it sometimes follows its prey in the water, and seizes several fishes in succession” (vol. iv. p. 227). This author gives an excellent account of the gannct.
Gannets have been taken about Horn Head in the old-fashioned manner, by a fish fastened to a strong piece of board which is floated, and the bird coming down from a height in the air on the prey, has its neck dislocated. A fine adult bird was found upon the shore there with its neck thus broken a day or two before our visit at the end of June 1832. It is remarked by Mr. John Macgillivray that “The force with which the gannet plunges from on wing in pursuit of a fish is astonishingly great. The following story, illustrating this point, was related to me by more than one person, both in St. Kilda and Harris, and I believe to be true. Several years ago, an open boat was returning from St. Kilda to Harris, and a few herrings happened to be lying in the bottom, close to the edge of the ballast. A gannet passing overhead, stopping for a moment, suddenly darted down upon the fish, and passed through the bottom of the boat as far as the middle of the body, which, being retained in that position by one of the crew, effectually stopped the leak, until they had reached their destination.”* Whether or not we give credence to this story, the following will not, I fear, pass current. OʻFlaherty, in his West or H-Iar Connaught,' written in 1684, informs us that
_"Here the ganet soares high into the sky to espy his prey in the sea under him, at which he casts himself headlong into the sea, and swallows up whole herrings in a morsell. This bird flys through the ship's sailes, piercing them with his beak” (p. 12).+
* Description of the Island of St. Kilda, ‘Edin. Phil. Journ.' January 1842, p. 66 † Published by the Irish Archäological Society, in 1846.
Breeding-haunts.—The adult gannets seen about the coasts of Antrim and Down in summer-and at five o'clock in the morning, as already stated, I have observed them about the Copeland Islands-are probably daily wanderers from their nearest breedinghaunts, or, indeed, their only near one, the Craig of Ailsa, from which the birds about Horn Head, in Donegal, also, probably come, as St. Kilda, their next nearest and only other breedinghaunt on the western coast of Scotland, is still more distant. It has been remarked of Ailsa—“The broken summits of the columns (of basalt, huge fragments of which encumber the beach below] serve to give a variety that increases the general picturesque effect. These are the habitations and nests of the gannets, innumerable flocks of which annually breed here; forming, with the various tribes of gulls, puffins, auks, and other sea-fowl, a feathered population scarcely exceeded by that of St. Kilda or the Flannan Isles. As the alarm occasioned by the arrival of a boat spreads itself, the whole of this noisy multitude takes wing, forming a cloud in the atmosphere which bears a striking resemblance to a fall of snow, or to the scattering of autumnal leaves in a storm. To prevent interference in their courses, each cloud of birds occupies a distinct stratum in the air, circulating in one direction, and in a perpetual wheeling flight.”*
Although I have not visited Ailsa, its noble pyramidal form, rising to the altitude of 1,100 feet above the sea,t has always been familiar to me, forming, as it does, so fine a feature in the scenery when viewed from the north-east coast of Ireland. But while shooting on moors in Ayrshire, I have had the pleasure of making a nearer acquaintance with it, as thence casting the eye seaward, it was always the grandest object within view. On one occasion it was observed from the inland mountains that intensely dark clouds occupied the entire west and north-west, and most dismally grim did Ailsa rise from the dark waters; again, that it appeared covered with snow towards the summit, so exquisitely white were the clouds resting there ;—and several times during two succes
* M'Colloch's 'Western Isles,' vol. i. p. 493.